UCU strike: dispatches from the picket line

As the nationwide strike of University and College Union members in defence of lecturers’ pensions enters its third week, rs21 looks at how the strike is progressing at various locations around the country. Some activists have asked that their names be withheld.

UCU pensions dispute strike
Speakers at the 28 February Defend Education rally | Photo by Steve Eason


The last five days of strike – the longest I’ve ever been out – have been extremely cold and tiring. But they’ve also been exciting, uplifting and a great education. Here are some things I’ve learned so far:

1) Support and solidarity – especially in the form of food and hot drinks – are more important than you imagine. I’ve joked a few times that the longer we are on strike the more weight I’m likely to put on. I’ve been given tea and homemade cakes by UCL students, homemade shortbread by a lecturer from a non-striking university, countless cups of tea and coffee made or bought by our admin staff in Unison, by the security guards… and even on one or two occasions sent out by senior management. And then of course there are our tireless SOAS students who supply us with hot water, hand warmers, wood for the brazier and copious amounts of cold fried chicken.

2) It can be a very wearying experience picketing a university where most of the time you are trying to prevent students from going in to use the library rather than preventing your colleagues from breaking the strike. While many students turn back, many do not, either because they are dead set on studying at all costs (!) or because they simply do not understand what a picket line is or why we are striking. Sometimes patient explanations work, sometimes they don’t.

Photo by Steve Eason

3) Being on strike in the freezing cold has had contradictory effects on me. On the one hand my stress levels have gone through the floor, but on the other I arrive home every day after 3-4 hours of arctic picketing and collapse in exhaustion. Right now I’m happy to swap stress for exhaustion, but after another two weeks of this maybe I’ll change my mind.

4) One of the best things about being on the picket line rather than just staying away from work is that you have a great opportunity to get to know your colleagues. Picket line discussions can range from the trivial to intense and intellectual (we are bloody academics after all). But there is also that sense of common purpose, shared adversity and just good old-fashioned cooperation, without the stresses, strains, bureaucratic meetings and endless emails that serve to keep us isolated and alienated in our everyday work lives. After only five days I can already begin to understand that thing where people who have been out on strike for a long time struggle to transition back to the unnatural world of everyday work life.

A strike rally in Cambridge

Cambridge (Nick E)

Cambridge University has seen the ‘biggest mass picketing in its history’ according to one UCU branch member. Large pickets at a whole number of sites, some not previously unionised, have continued to grow as the strike has gone on and as the weather has got colder. Student support has been especially important. Students have brought cake, soup and hot drinks. They have organised noisy demonstrations, occupations and spectacular stunts such as an up-sized picket fence built by the Rebel Architects Faction. Staff and students have worked together on a programme of Teach-Outs during the strike, on subjects such as Decolonising the Curriculum, Heterodox Economics and Resisting the Prevent agenda.

The scale of the action has taken the University by surprise. Partly it seems to be explained by the severity of the attacks – some longer-standing staff on picket lines were describing it as ‘the last straw’. The particular role that Cambridge and its colleges appear to have played in undermining the existing USS pensions scheme has been another cause for anger locally. But we are also seeing the legacy of the 2010 student movement reflected on the picket lines and in the composition of the combative and creative UCU branch strike committee.

UCU strike
Image by Pete Cannell – CCO

Edinburgh (Pete C)

I work as a part-time tutor for the Open University in Scotland. The bulk of OU academic staff in Scotland are part-time and work from home. Full-time staff are mostly located at the central campus in Milton Keynes. While part-timers are in the pension scheme, unless they also work full-time for another institution, many will receive very small pensions at the end of their careers.  Geographical dispersal has made organising difficult in the past. Despite this the pensions fight has attracted wide support with many more volunteering to picket the OU’s Scottish offices than has been the case in previous disputes. Support has been strong on the central campus too.

On the third day of the strike there was an impressive rally at Edinburgh University. It was supported by delegations from all the striking institutions, by members of EIS-ULA, which is the majority union at some Scottish institutions and is not on strike, by college lecturers and by impressive numbers of students. With about four hundred attending it was at least double the size of similar events in the past.

A picket line in Oxford | Photo by John Geoffrey Walker


In Oxford, pickets across the city have been well-attended by students. Several hundred attended a rally on the first day of the strike, setting a heartening precedent. In an emergency meeting of the Student Union a fortnight before the strikes, the SU’s position was pushed from one of equivocation to one of solidarity. The momentum generated by student activists from that point has continued. The student-led Campaign for Racial Awareness and Equality organised a series of teach-ins on issues ranging in topic from the racist Prevent legislation to the marketization of education, bringing students and striking staff together to imagine higher education beyond the neoliberal university.

The Guardian reported in the first week of industrial action that Oxford and Cambridge wielded decisive influence over the proposed reforms, making Oxford central to the national dispute. In the last few days, all eyes have been on an attempt by around 150 academics to empower the University’s highest democratic body to withdraw its endorsement of the reforms via a democratic vote. The vote would be on Tuesday 6th but would require a suspension of regulations to take place. It could therefore be blocked by as few as 20 fellows due to the archaic regulations governing the process, and the Vice Chancellor Louise Richardson has made clear her opposition to suspending these regulations.


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